Skullgirls – Mike Z Talks History, Development, and Gameplay Philosophy Skullgirls – Mike Z Talks History, Development, and Gameplay Philosophy
With Skullgirls steadily nearing complete public consumption (it’s slated for release this week!), Mike Zaimont took the time to answer a few of our... Skullgirls – Mike Z Talks History, Development, and Gameplay Philosophy

With Skullgirls steadily nearing complete public consumption (it’s slated for release this week!), Mike Zaimont took the time to answer a few of our questions about the game. If you’d like to learn about his design goals, specific things done to make Skullgirls stand out from the crowd, long-term plans, and more… then read on!

Red Rick Dias, In general, what can we expect from Skullgirls?

Mike ‘Mike Z’ Zaimont, Project Lead for Skullgirls: You can expect a pretty full-featured 2D fighting game. We’ve got story mode, arcade mode, a training room, extensive tutorials which go well beyond the basic “throw a fireball, nice!”, and, of course, online play using GGPO. We’re a really small team, so some of these don’t have quite as many options as we wanted initially, but since it’s downloadable it’ll be cheap – $15, less than a quarter of the cost of a disc-based game!

The basic game style is close to the Versus series, with tagging, assists, red health, push-blocking, OTG hits, snapbacks, DHCs, etc. However, we’ve done a number of things to add spice. Teams can be one, two, or three characters, with smaller team sizes getting health and damage bonuses in return for sacrificing some versatility. Players can create custom assist types – simply choose Custom, input the move you want as the assist, and that’s what you’ll get!  Normals, specials, throws, dashes… any ground move besides supers can be chosen. There are also a number of system differences designed to help high-level gameplay such as allowing counters while air-blocking, protection from high/low unblockables and a unique infinite detection system.

I think it’s a very solid package for that price, and we want to release free patches to keep improving it in the future.

SRK: You’ve mentioned wanting to make Skullgirls more accessible than most games in the genre. Can you give us some examples of what you’re doing to make that happen?  

Mike Z: There are a lot of things, but I guess the biggest thing would be those tutorials I mentioned. The goal of this tutorial mode is to make people better fighting game players, rather than simply pat them on the back after they learn specials or use basic game systems. We have 17 lessons, each with multiple parts, to teach you the basics of fighting games. And I do mean basic – we start with movement and jumping because, well, if someone has never played a fighting game before and buys this, they might not know that Up is how you usually jump.

From there, we introduce core concepts of the genre like blocking correctly, reacting to defense with mixups, recognizing and defending against tick throws, and punishing unsafe moves. To me, these are the things tutorials should be teaching players. Each lesson has text explaining the concepts of what we’re going to teach you, and we tried to make them as interactive as possible. Rather than just explain that a basic approach to defense is to mostly block low, then switch to high when you see an overhead attack coming, we give the player a chance to exercise that strategy versus an AI doing progressively harder mix-ups, to help them internalize the knowledge.

I think the next biggest thing would be our anti-infinite system. While I designed this as a balancing factor for high-level play, I think it will make the game a lot more fun for less-skilled players who wade into online matches because they won’t have to worry about just getting destroyed by some guy who knows an infinite and wipes them out in one touch. They may still lose, but at the very least they’ll probably walk away and feel like they at least learned something from the experience, instead of just feeling frustrated and helpless.  And hopefully that’s enough to get them to keep trying and practicing.

SRK: What about the controls? It’s a subtle topic, but even seemingly minor things like how basic movement and throws are done can have a real impact.

Mike Z: There are a lot of little touches, fixing annoyances I’ve had with various games in the past, like a tap-to-set button configure available on the character select screen. As far as gameplay goes… we never require three buttons simultaneously, only two, and we don’t require them to be pressed on the exact same frame. We buffer airdash inputs, so pressing PP immediately after jumping will wait until the minimum height and airdash, rather than giving you a jumping attack by mistake. There are no input shortcuts, but all the moves are pretty easy to pull off, no pretzels or anything beyond ‘standard’ move motions are required.

We even simplified a lot of those – since LP+LK is Throw in Skullgirls, command throws are just QCT/QCB + Throw, rather than 360. There is one 360 in the game right now, as a super, but I added some tech that looks for 360s so you don’t need to worry about doing the motion quickly to avoid jumping. DPs are lenient so F,D,DF,F works, but if you want to differentiate between a QCT and DP you can use any Back direction before the Down to guarantee a QCT will come out even if you were holding Towards beforehand.  And something that has always bothered me – if there are overlapping inputs, for example QCT+MP (fireball) and QCT+MP+MK (snapback), we allow the first few frames of the QCT+P to be kara-cancelled into the more complicated move in case the player didn’t hit the buttons at exactly the same time. There’s a lot more, but I should stop because I could go on about this stuff for hours.

As far as pad players go, it is a six button game so they need all the help they can get. Sorry, Fanatiq!  :^)  Since it’s possible to play a single character or a team of two, players can use smaller teams to limit the button combinations they have to worry about, by not having extra assists to call. There are also two unmapped buttons which can be macro’ed to any combination of the attack buttons. We let the player determine the mapping – on the button configure screen, you scroll down to the Macros area, press the un-mapped button and then press the attack buttons you want to map to it.  You don’t have to press the attacks at the same time, and you can map any combination you desire, even all six at once.

SRK: You’re also an experienced tournament player and have been asking for input from your peers. Can you tell us about some things you’ve done to make Skullgirls fit into the competitive scene?

Mike Z: I’ve always wanted this to be a tournament-worthy game, one where your skill matters more than how easily you can abuse exploits or tier differences. We’ll see how the tiers resolve themselves, hah, but I’ve certainly tried for balance. Every character has a tool for most situations; some are worse than others, of course, like a zoning character should be disadvantaged if the opponent gets in, but I tried to make sure no character is completely helpless at any time. The infinite prevention system helps level the playing field by eliminating braindead loops, and there is protection against high/low humanly-unblockable setups which is one of the reasons custom assists are even possible. However, easily the most important thing for refining the game in a competitive setting has been playtesting.

From the first time the game was playable with just a team of three Filias, I have been having anyone and everyone I can convince to play it do so and give feedback. While we were adding characters I held weekly balancing/playtesting sessions with some of SoCal’s finest (and grimiest) players, from all games: Peacock incorporates advice from Cable players, Ms. Fortune was tweaked by Eddie and Carl players, I-No and Morrigan mains helped with Valentine, Lambda/Arakune players advised on Cerebella for some reason, etc.

I’ve taken Skullgirls to every tournament and event I’ve attended for over eighteen months, from SoCal Regionals to East Coast Throwdown to the past two Evos. I trucked it to James Chen’s apartment, I had Justin and Floe play, it’s been to the Comboratory, to many NorCal Installs, we’ve had it at the weekly Wednesday Night Fights for months, I talked to Keits about various visual issues, the ever-wonderful Majestros has offered advice on the tutorials, and I even tracked down the elusive Thongboy Bebop at his secret dirigible fortress and forced him to play on pain of listening to me talk about pie.

SRK: That’s quite the list! Was there any feedback taken from the wider community?

Mike Z: I regularly read all the forums I can, even the comments that make me cry (you know who you are), and I change things based on feedback daily and sometimes even hourly. Characters and gameplay systems have been regularly updated over the course of a public event, for example Parasoul underwent a major design overhaul based on feedback from day 1 of Evo 2011, and the changes were tested on day 2 and tweaked that evening.

Sure, I filter all the changes and make final decisions, but a huge amount of what this game is comes from community interaction. Things like having to hold Start for a bit to pause, rather than tap it, helps prevent accidental pausing in tournaments and came from a suggestion on SRK’s own forums. Since we first showed that at Evo 2011, it has been adopted by other companies. I am genuinely happy about this, too, because it improves the genre as a whole.

SRK: You were previously very active in BlazBlue, and even made its famous Tager/’Real Soviet Damage’ tutorial. After being so invested in that game, what prompted you to change your focus to Skullgirls?

Mike Z: I’ve always wanted to make a fighting game, and I’ve been working on what became the Skullgirls game engine in my free time for…well, it started in college, so over 10 years now.  There was a lot of overlap with my MvC2, MvC3, Guilty Gear, and BlazBlue, uh, “golden years.”

I was working at Pandemic Studios full time, and I had just met Alex when that studio closed.  My engine and his concepts were far enough along that I decided to focus on Skullgirls. The experiences I’ve had playing both older and newer fighting games formed the groundwork of my effort, and I might have continued to play BlazBlue but funnily enough working evenings and weekends for a few years doesn’t leave you much time to practice.  So I only played what I already knew.  (^.^)”

…plus, Tager never got that Sledge Break. :^|

SRK: Let’s move away from game play for a moment, and discuss the ‘world’ of Skullgirls; its art style and story. What can you tell us about these, and where can people go if they want to learn more about either the visuals or plot?

Mike Z: Story mode really isn’t my area of expertise, so I’ll tell you what Alex tells me.

Alex Ahad, Creative Director and Art Lead: There’s an artifact called the Skull Heart which has existed for thousands of years, and once every seven years it will grant a woman’s wish if their heart is pure. If not, their wish is twisted and they become a monster called the Skullgirl. A new Skullgirl has arrived on the scene! And everyone’s after her and/or the Heart.

Some of the characters want the Skull Heart to make wishes, some want to destroy it, a few want to destroy the Skullgirl, and others are moved by external forces. We only had time to do non-canon stories, but there’s a larger and more involved story mode we want to release in the future.

I wasn’t involved in the creation of story mode so it kind of took me by surprise when I first played it. They’re short, but there is an amazing amount of art and the plot isn’t tissue-paper thin (stolen car, anyone?) so I think people will enjoy them. There are a lot of possibly-future characters that people on the forums want to see and know more about, too.

SRK: Skullgirls is launching with a small roster of just eight characters. While the lower budget of a PSN/XBLA release obviously means we won’t get a thirty-plus character roster, can you explain why you’re going with this number?

Mike Z: It was really just a function of time, money and our desired level of quality. We might have been able to make more characters if we cut down on their number of moves and animations, but that’s not what we wanted. We realize people are pretty used to huge rosters now, but with our limitations we aimed for depth over breadth. There are a ton of ways to build your team with the different team sizes and custom assists, so I think we have at least the gameplay variety of a larger game.

That depth extends beyond the systems to the characters themselves. All of our characters are really strong and good at what they do, and have a lot of little technical quirks to exploit. It’s kind of a joke around the office that whenever we reveal a new one, people automatically say they’re “broken” because they have so many useful moves, and I guess people aren’t used to that kind of gameplay density in a single character. Even Double, who morphs into other characters, plays totally differently – she got completely new animated-from-scratch specials, throws, and supers, and some normals were reanimated because she doesn’t have the original character’s power.

When you get to creating larger rosters it becomes hard to do without clones, but of course the mecha-satsui-no-hado-palette-swapped-dark-sunburned-elemental-ghost-shin-robo characters need to have distinguishing characteristics. And that’s when things start to get mushy, because why bother creating someone who is just someone else with a slightly faster projectile?  Obviously we’re looking to expand the game in the future and it’ll be a challenge to maintain that level of uniqueness, but we have concepts and gameplay ideas for a lot of future characters and think we’re up to the challenge.

SRK: What sort of long-term support can we expect, and on what general schedule? Will there be new characters? Bug fixes or balance updates?

Mike Z: We want to support the game for a long time with new features and updates, but we’ll see what we can actually do once the game is released. I guess a lot of that will depend on how well the game does, since the better we do, the easier it will be to convince people to let us continue to do it.

As you may have heard, submitting patches is expensive, so the patches will probably revolve around the DLC character release schedule, which we’re still working out. I wish I could give you more, so… I will say that we have started working on the first DLC character. She’s the one everybody wants… unless you happen to be a person who wanted someone else. :^)

SRK: Finally, the inevitable questions: When will Skullgirls be released, and what price point can we expect?

Mike Z: This was finally announced!  April 10th on North American PSN, with European version landing in the following weeks. Worldwide on XBLA on April 11th. It will be $15 or whatever 1200 MS Points equals in your native currency.

You heard the man! Be sure to grab Skullgirls on your preferred platform as it becomes available, and check out the blood, sweat, and tears the folks over at Reverge Labs have put into crafting this unique fighter. Thanks again to Mike Z and Alex Ahad for answering our questions. We can’t wait to get our hands on your game!